Guiding My Children Responsibly Without Imposing Rules

We don’t make rules in our family, so how do my children know what is right and what is wrong, if they aren’t guided by clearly stated limits?  Do I believe my own quiet example of appropriate behaviour is all that is needed in order to influence my children? Perhaps I stand back, hands-off, and let my children behave as they choose?

I decide to ponder a few ideas with my children, in an attempt to find the answers to these questions.

“Should I correct you if I feel your behaviour is wrong?” I ask.

“Oh yes,” replies my second daughter Imogen. “Children need guidance from their parents. You can’t just let us do whatever we want. We’d grow up to be very self-centred. And we wouldn’t know what constitutes appropriate behaviour when it comes to relating to people.”

“Should we have rules so you all know what is acceptable and what is not, or is there another way?”

“Rules aren’t the answer. They can be broken, and parents and children end up fighting over them, in a power struggle. I like how you do things better.”

I ask Imogen to explain. “You take us quietly aside and chat about things as equals. I know we’re not equals*. You’re the parent and we’re your children, but it feels like we’re talking on the same level.  You don’t lord it over us, talking down to us. You don’t make us feel small.”

When I observe one of my children having a hard time acting appropriately or upset over something, I do try to spend some quiet time with her/him. I try not to make accusations but rather endeavour to show empathy:

“You’re having a hard time getting on with your older sister?”

“You’re finding it difficult being patient with the younger ones?”

“Having trouble staying cheerful?”

This usually gives my children an opening to share how they’re feeling. They can talk about the issues they’re having difficulties with. We ponder the situation together and sometimes chatting is enough. If it’s not we usually come up with some suggestions together, for dealing with the problem. Often I share my own experiences too. I’m certainly not perfect so I can talk about my own struggles.

“What if you want to do something I’m not happy about?” I ask Imogen.

“Like what?” she asks.

“Well, what if you want to go out with friends and stay out to the early hours of the morning and I’m worried about you doing this?”

Imogen smiles. I smile too. This sounds like a very improbable scenario. “Just pretend,” I say, before adding, “Should I intervene or just let you do what you like?”

“You should tell me how you feel and share your reasons for not wanting me to do that and I’d listen,” Imogen says.

“But why should you listen?”

“Because I respect your opinion. I trust you because you always trust and respect me.”

Twelve year old Sophie has been listening intently to this conversation. Now she says, “You always listen to me. You always want to hear my side of the story so I would listen to you too.”

Now of course, if I saw my children fighting and someone was in danger of being hurt, I wouldn’t wait for a quiet moment in order to sort things out. That would be silly. I’d separate my children immediately and deal with the problem there and then, listening to both parties.

And if a child was about to do something dangerous or destructive, again it wouldn’t make sense to say, “When you’re finished, would you mind meeting me for a little chat?”

There are other situations where one-on-one conferences are not the answer. Sometimes a quick word, is all that is needed to remind my kids to act properly: a few words of empathy, a reminder, even eye-to-eye contact:

“Tired? Finding it hard to cope?”

“Can you take your shoes off please? The mud will stain the carpet.”


Is guiding my children in this manner compatible with unschooling philosophy? I don’t really know. Does it even matter if we’re all happy and my children are growing into well adjusted people? It’s not as if I’m attempting to get a degree in advanced unschooling. I’m bringing up children… my children.

I do however find other people’s opinions interesting, so I’ll share something I read recently. On Sandra Dodd‘s website, I found a list of things to do if you want to ‘screw up unschooling’. Here’s a few points:

  • Don’t collaborate.
  • “Unparent”—give kids “free reign” without talking to them re: appropriateness of their actions (affecting others and others’ property).
  • Don’t help your kid understand the ways of the world and boundaries and what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • When they have a disagreement, let them work things out themselves with no input from you.
  • Do not prepare them ahead of time for anything new they may encounter. Let them deal with it on their own.
  • Have the idea that unschooling is just allowing your kids to walk all over others because they feel like it and well you don’t want to run their lives!
  • Set lots of rules, boundaries, and limitations.

There’s lots to ponder here.

As I am writing this my young adult son Callum arrives home. Perhaps he has something extra to add.

“I’m writing about rules,” I say.

“Rules don’t work. Children need boundaries.”

“But how can you have boundaries without rules?”

“I don’t mean boundaries enforced by external rules. I mean self-imposed boundaries,” explains Callum. “The incentive not to step over the line and do what is wrong must come from within a child.”

“And what makes a child want to stay within those limits?”

Then Callum mentioned trust and respect and love and example… all very powerful motivators for influencing a child to do what is right.

Can a parent bring up well adjusted children who know right from wrong without rules? I believe they can.

* I do believe we are equal in dignity and worth, but we are unequal in experience.

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  1. Reply

    Sue, will you adopt me…pleeze? Okay, so I'm older than you, but does that really matter? 🙂

    Seriously, wonderful post. Wish I had read it when I was raising my son. We probably went too much in the "rules" direction. You are a super wise mom, and those beautiful faces on your children say it all. Love and hugs..

    1. Reply


      If you are older than me perhaps I can adopt you as my older sister. I don't have one of those!

      The photo is a little blurry but I still wanted to use it as I like the happy smiles. I like seeing brothers and sisters interacting and enjoying each other's company.

      I'm glad you enjoyed my post. I really appreciate your kind words. Thank you!

      Sending love and hugs back across the ocean towards you! xx

  2. Reply

    Sue, reading your posts is starting to disturb me a little bit. It's like you're sneaking into my home and eavesdropping on our own family conversations. 😉 Big difference – you're far more eloquent in expressing these experiences than I am.

    I absolutely love getting a sneak peek into all these wonderful discussions with your kids. 🙂

    1. Reply


      Your first sentence worried me for a second… until I kept reading! I thought, "What have I said? Am I that far wrong?" But then your next words reassured me. It's so lovely to know you are a kindred spirit and can relate to what I wrote.

      I love talking with my kids, and listening to their opinions. I learn so much from them. Fortunately they don't mind me using these conversations in my posts. I usually give my posts to my children to read and check, to make sure I have accurately captured both their words and meaning, before I hit 'publish'.

      Thank you for reading my story and leaving a comment!

  3. Reply

    Oh, this is lovely, Sue! I agree. We don't have rules, either, but we talk a lot. Like you, I feel it's important to respect children and listen. We now have three children aged eighteen and over, and have never had any problems with wayward behaviour, at all. So, yes, I agree with you – children can definitely be brought up to know right from wrong without rules.

    BTW, our two adult children, who are still at home, choose to go to Confession most weekends. I think that has played its part in forming their consciences, as well.

    I'm going to save this post on my iPad to ponder more:)

    God bless, Sue:-)
    PS. I think that our children understand about external laws and rules, and they respect them because they've been brought up to understand how respect works. Also, trust of God, as well as our children, seems to lead to less need to control but, still, better outcomes.

    1. Reply


      I'm so glad you agree! I love having teenagers and young adults. I can see you enjoy yours too. I think it's very sad when parents roll their eyes and say such things as, "She'll be a teenager soon. Life is about to get tough!"

      The more I think about it, the more I believe unschooling fits right in with our Catholic faith… valuing each and every person, forgiving mistakes, living in the present moment, giving up control and abandoning ourselves to Divine Providence and trusting… You make some excellent points.

      Thank you for your comment!

  4. Reply


    What a awesome post! Your so right!
    I always think about when I get married and have children of my own, even though I'm
    only 12. But the one question that has been bugging me for ages is, "How am I going to deal with their behaviour?" You have just solved it for me, right there and then!
    Thank you very much!!!

    God Bless,

    1. Reply


      I am sure you'll have no problems dealing with the behaviour of any children you might have in the future. You sound like such a beautiful young lady so all you have to do is look at your own family and how your mum is bringing you up, and you'll have all the answers you need. Thank you for your kind words! It's always a pleasure to chat with you.

      God bless!

  5. Reply


    Thank you so much for your kind encouragement!
    I forgot to say that I loved the picture of Charlotte and Gemma-Rose. They look so happy and joyful! =D

    God Bless

    1. Reply


      I took this photo of Charlotte and Gemma-Rose while were having a picnic at the lake several months ago. It was a happy day! God bless!

  6. What a beautiful post, Sue – thank you.

    On Saturday I had the opportunity to meet Sandra Dodd and ask her about something I had been wondering about. As you are one of my biggest unschooling inspirations, I was wondering what your take on her philosophy was – and here you are quoting from her website!

    At the same (unschooling) conference I met a wonderful lady called Cathy Koetsier (her website is Cathy gave a wonderfully inspiring talk about her family's unschooling experiences (her children range from 11 to 22, and she had the oldest two with her). She and her children were so full of grace. Once again I was reminded of you and your lovely family!


    1. Reply


      Wow! Sandra Dodd would be a very interesting person to meet. Perhaps you can write a post about Saturday's conference?

      I've seen Cathy's website and like it very much. It's great listening to people talk about their experiences and coming home all inspired, isn't it? When we started homeschooling I went to a few conferences where I met other homeschoolers and picked up lots of ideas. These days we are spoilt, with access to lots of wonderful websites and blogs. It's easy to share and support each other, even if we can't get to meet people in person. Though I am sure nothing beats meeting people such as Sandra in real life.

      Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm glad you enjoyed my post! I love chatting with you!

    2. I love the support and ideas I receive from my online friends, but there was something so exciting about being in a room with so many people who share my parenting philosophy. As a relative newbie I appreciate support on all sides!

      The conference was just 20 minutes drive from my house, and to meet so many kindred spirits so close to home was very inspiring. I came away with that mixture of excited buzzing and total exhaustion I get from engaging intensely with people for a long period!

      So I will definitely be posting about it, to help me collect my thoughts, apart from anything else!

    3. Reply


      I can really feel your excitement. I remember the buzz, the high that lasted for quite some time. Yes, there's nothing like it. I can't believe how fortunate you were to meet such high profile speakers so close to your home! I'm looking forward to your conference post!

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